Thursday, January 18, 2018

I Can't Do This!!!!!

I know this must sound familiar! That ridiculous math problem that even someone with a PHD from MIT couldn't figure out. That really happened by the way. When my daughter was in middle school the powers that be decided to try out a new math curriculum. Let me just say that not only did this curriculum bring the kids to tears, but all the parents as well. We would bump into each other at our local supermarket, and discuss the previous night's homework as if it were our own. "Do you believe last nights assignment, I want to kill the person who designed this damn curriculum," we would say to each other. And truly there was an MIT mathematician parent in the class, and even he reported throwing the textbook across the room. Let's just say we weren't the best role models for our kids.

Sometimes your teen's homework is frustrating, perplexing and just plain hard. If your teen has a low frustration tolerance, giving up seems like the smartest strategy. Or if you have a teen who has breezed through elementary and middle school, and now the work is finally challenging, they are caught off guard, "ooh, maybe I'm not as smart as I thought I was." Or maybe the assignment is just plain boring. Whatever the case, they might actually come to you for a solution, like just giving them the answer. In the above example, I think all of us parents agreed that this curriculum was completely turning the kids off to math, and setting them up for total math anxiety. We were powerless to change the curriculum, but you can bet your bottom dollar that we gave some very honest feedback to the math department head. But that didn't help in the short term when our kids were crying and saying they were stupid. What we could do though was acknowledge for the kids that this was tough stuff, and to do the best they could, and truly it wasn't that they weren't smart enough. A lot of kids got pretty mediocre math grades that year, but most of us just let it go. Really, what's the big deal, 7th grade grades are not figured in for college!

When your teen comes to you for help, your first job is to diagnose the problem. Try to refrain from jumping into problem solve, or conversely criticize them for giving up too soon. Start with this instead: " I get this assignment is really frustrating for you. Tell me where you're stuck?" Maybe they just need you to break down the assignment into smaller more manageable pieces. Teens often can't see the forest through the trees, and because they are inpatient and want to breeze through the subjects they really hate, they get overwhelmed from the beginning. You can help by having them break down the assignment into steps, and get them to spend 15 minutes on the first step and then take a break. When they have success with one step, it gives them motivation to begin the next one. They need a ton of encouragement and understanding. " I know this stuff doesn't come easy to you, but I know you can get it." If you jump in and do the work, they take away two things. One, Yay, I can get mom or dad to do my work, and I am off the hook, and two, maybe mom and dad don't think I can do it, and so they don't want me to screw up with the teacher, so they want to do it for me.
I know of a young woman, now a graduate student, whose dad wanted to get her into his Alma mater, so in high school he basically wrote all her papers, college essays etc. He continued in college to edit, and I use that term loosely her papers.  Now as a grad student in a program that is making her a carbon copy of him, she is unable to complete the work without him. This is an extreme example, but you can see the problem here.



Your teen needs your confidence that he/she can succeed, and is not lazy just frustrated. You are  available for support and consultation but the ownership of the work always belongs with him/her. Having realistic expectation is a must. Your teen will have areas of strength, areas of weakness, and areas that he/she is just not that interested in. And that is just fine! No kid is good at everything!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Gifts Of A Parent: The Person Your Teen Will Become

Last week I visited my 98 year old aunt and uncle who now live in Florida. Not only were they very much alive and well, but that they still have each other, and clearly are still so much in love is remarkable! I haven't been a very good niece. It's been at least 20 years since I last saw them. My aunt would call every few years, I would feel terribly guilty that I hadn't called her, and then I'd promise myself I would be better, but then I didn't and I wasn't.

My Aunt GG was my father's youngest sister. My father died when I was 13 and after that we didn't see his side of the family very often. When we did have a visit it was always wonderful and warm, but unfortunately not very regular. They all lived in New York, and my mom was a widowed single working mother and we just didn't get away very much.

As an adult, and now though I loath to say it, an older adult (cue, but Joani you still look so young) I have been thinking a lot about my childhood and who I have become. Apparently doing a life review is an important process of moving into the "twilight years." Having lost my dad at 13, I would often ask myself what would I have been like? Who would I have been if my dad had been with me throughout my life? How would I have turned out differently? Questions that have always plagued me, thinking if I only had a dad......

The yearning to see my Aunt GG and Uncle Freddie I think were rooted in these questions and realizing that they were my last connection to my dad, and the last of a generation,  I suddenly felt this urgency to connect with them.

What a profound and meaningful visit. We talked for many hours about many things. The stories they shared were evident of a life full of meaning and passion. Eventually we came to talk about my dad. And I asked if they would tell me about him. Unfortunately I have been left with few memories of him. I think when one suffers a traumatic and unexpected loss of a beloved parent at a young age, memories get lost. Not only because the loss itself is so painful, but also because as a child and young adolescent you live in the moment and don't know that unknowingly you are absorbing all the life and relationships and experiences that later will become the fabric of who you become.

My Uncle Freddie said to me "Joani, your dad was the most special person I ever knew, and I have known a lot of people." I asked if he could tell me what made him so special. " it is so hard to put into words the quality of the man he was," he said. "He was so compassionate and kind, full of empathy. He was so smart and funny, and when you talked to him you felt like you were the most important person in the world." My Aunt GG said the same. We talked some more and it was time to go. I sat in my car and wept, not out of sadness for the loss and the time I hadn't had with him, but for the understanding that so much of who I am and how I try to live in the world is because I experienced it from him, and unknowingly it had become the very fabric of who I am. I celebrated that the 13 years I had with my dad, during those formative years of childhood, have been a part of me, and lived in me without my even knowing it.

When I returned home, I called my beloved daughter to tell her all that I had experienced. And she brilliantly said: "mom, isn't that what you tell the parents you work with all the time? That what is going on with your teens in the present, may be difficult and uncomfortable, but that the teen years are just a moment in time. You tell them they have already done the major work of parenting in those childhood years, of teaching values and providing them with experiences and love and the meaning of family and relationships. You had those 13 years with your dad, and he is inside you! She is a smart one my daughter!

And that is why I have told you this story of my visit with my 98 year old Aunt GG and Uncle Freddie.  To remind you that what you may be experiencing now with your teen: the fear for their safety, the worry for their future, the expectations not realized, is all part of a much bigger picture. Bring your lens back into wide focus. They need these teen years to experiment and play with all that is inside them; all that you have already given to them; and fit that  together with the personality and temperament they were born with. And through this process they will become a fully integrated adult. That is a tall order!

I am both myself and my mom and my dad. You have already given your teen many gifts, and now it's time to let them play!


Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Snapshot Into Your Teen's World

I got a call from a parent the other night saying that while she was cleaning up her teen's room she found a suspicious substance. Hanging up her daughter's discarded clothing choices that lay abandoned on the floor, she noticed a large baggie full of water in the closet. Inside that baggie was another baggie with what looked like melted jello. The mom was wondering what this substance could be. She couldn't bring herself to taste test not knowing how long said substance had been sitting in the closet, and not wanting to send the substance to a drug lab (only kidding) she called me.

My first thought is that it was a melted jello shot (favorite method for kids to ingest alcohol.) Mix copious amounts of vodka into jello, refrigerate, cut into cubes and jiggle away! It may have been that at the end of a party there were leftovers, and the teens decided that rather than throw away this delicious treat, they would divvy up the spoils, pack them in ice to prevent melting and go on their way. I'm guessing this teen hid it in her closet to save for a rainy day, and then completely forgot about it.

Obviously the first step here is to show the teen what you have found, and ask her/him to identify the substance. I can predict that most teens, even when there is some evidence presented will go directly into denial mode, as in "wow, I don't know what that is, I don't know where it came from." Claiming ignorance is a much safer strategy. In this case, the parent needs to put out her suspicion without sarcasm and judgement. " You know honey, I think this is a melted jello shot" The teen will probably be shocked that you even know what that is! Teen will probably say "it belonged to a friend, someone left it in her room, yadayadayada."

Honestly, at this point, the good news is that the parent found it, and this can lead to discussion on the danger of jello shots, which is really the point!!! Many teens don't see this form of alcohol ingestion as dangerous, after all its jello! but each one of those jello treats can hold 1 ounce of booze, and if you pop a bunch of those sweet treats quickly, you can have dangerous levels of alcohol in your system before you know it.

Cleaning your teen's room  can sometimes provide wonderful opportunities for discussion. You don't even need to snoop, just doing a cursory clean is a window into your teen's life. Is your teen's room full of discarded clean clothes? Rather than getting angry and yelling at them about a lack of respect for their clothing, you might start a discussion like this: " When I was straightening up this morning I noticed how many clothing options you rejected. It must be really hard sometimes to feel like you look OK." What a great conversation you might have about self-image. Because that is what is really going on, teens are trying on options, which is another way of saying they are trying on personas. Who am I today??

Or maybe you find discarded homework papers, or alot of disorganization with school stuff. Rather than being critical and saying "no wonder you can't get any homework done, your desk is a mess! You might say: " When I was straightening up this morning, I noticed alot of school stuff laying around. I know it's hard sometimes to keep everything organized, your days are really full, how can I help?"

Or perhaps you find some scary stuff, drugs, pipes, booze. Now at least you know and you can address the problem.

Cleaning your teen's room is window into their world. If you treat their room as their private domain, you may be missing some really important clues into their life. Sometimes your teen is going through things they can't articulate or are afraid to tell you about. Initiating conversation, and I emphasize conversation and NOT INTERROGATION lets your teen know that you care about them and are looking out for them.

When my daughter was a teen, her life was extremely busy, often not getting home from school until 5 or 6. Dinner, homework, outfit decisions for the next day, and staying in touch with friends pretty much took up her whole night. Usually once a week I would tackle her room, hanging up clothes, pile up books etc. When she went up to her room after a long day, saw her comfy bed made, a floor with no clothes,and a desk she could work, she was always grateful. When you do something for your teen that shows understanding for their life and how hard it can be sometimes, you are giving them the best gift ever!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Back Seat Parenting: Put On The Brakes!!!

I was working out at my Gym over the weekend, huffing and puffing my way through some sit-ups while a small group training class was taking place around me. In this group of 5 was a dad and his teenage son. Oh, I thought, how lovely that the're sharing this time together doing something they both love to do. Well it turns out, I think it was just the dad who loves working out. I only surmised this after ogling his very ripped and toned body!!! Hey I'm only human! The son it turns out, not ripped and toned. Tall and skinny and clearly suffering through this workout at the behest of his dad. The trainer was a great guy; enthusiastic, supportive and doing his best to be this boy's cheerleader. The dad on the hand, grunting and groaning through his own lifts with some major wight poundage, still managed to yell out to his son going through his own workout; " use your abs!!!! and "lift don't swing those weights." As you can imagine, this boy/man now beat red in the face, rolled his eyes, and glared menacingly at his dad. The bubble over his head saying: "You know who I'd like to swing these weights at?????"

You are all good at something. And you hope, wish, and pray that maybe your kids will be good at the same things you're good at. Isn't that the circle of life? Maybe it all works out that way, but usually not, and especially not when your kids are teenagers. The last thing they want, is to be any which way at all like you!

Perhaps writing is your thing, and you are an editor extraordinaire; your teen's in-house managing editor. But believe me, your teen is shaking in his Adidas when you walk in the room asking to see his latest writing assignment. Feeling inadequate, measured against your experience and writing finesse, he has only written a few sentences, and you balk at his procrastination. Or perhaps you are a math wizard, and your teen's frustration tolerance for challenging math homework rivals a two year old's tantrums. And your frustration over their lack of understanding drives you mad.

Maybe you are a tennis(insert any sport you love) enthusiast, and have had your teen in tennis clinics since they were old enough to hold a racket. You have dreamed of these teenage years when you can get on the court together and play ball! You have so much to offer and teach, and believe me you do!! "take a full swing, throw the ball higher when you serve, run goddamn it, you could have gotten that volley!" Sounds like fun to me.

Get the point? The quickest way to squash enthusiasm in your teen is by offering your unsolicited "feedback."You have got to tread lightly in the coaching department. If they have actual coaches than let them do the work, and be the supportive cheerleader. Let their teachers do their job, and understand with your teen their frustration and their worry about being good enough, rather than adding to their worry about being good enough..for you. Adolescence is a time of life when defining themselves, their strengths, their weaknesses is a huge challenge. They are feeling enough of their own-self imposed pressure and expectations. Living up to yours should not be more important than living up to their own.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When Is A Bad Day Just A Bad Day?

I have had a number of calls recently from parents worried about their teen, trying to figure out whether their teen is just having growing pains, or is in a real depression. Teens love to dump on their parents, giving them their most angry, their most sad, their most anxious and fearful feelings. This is the good news. Think of it as colic. When the bad stuff gets expelled, then sleep and peace can come...until the next time.

Teens are feeling their feelings in ways they have never experienced them before. The intensity comes from an adolescent brain that is over activated in the area responsible for emotion, and literally from having some of these feelings for the first time. Without experience and a history that would have given them a game plan to deal with these feelings that are overwhelming, they are vulnerable to feeling like they might never go away. The first break-up, a humiliation on a soccer field, or a stage, the embarrassment of doing something or saying something impulsively stupid in front of your peers, the disappointment that someone you like doesn't like you back, the worry that they are disappointing you in some way, or any one of a million other things can feel like a catastrophe.

So your kid comes to you in a rage, in a tantrum, sobbing uncontrollably and you feel helpless. But they are coming to you. Like a sponge, you absorb every drop of emotion. You can't sleep, you can't eat, you live with a pit in your stomach that your kid is in pain. But here is the thing, now that they have dumped it all on you and you have so graciously sopped it all up, they are free to go out and enjoy life again. Rinse and repeat!

When is it time to worry? The dumping is a good sign. The emotion is a good sign. They are working it out.  It may be hard on you, but at least they have an outlet. The worry should start, if they are not talking, isolating themselves, and really seem to have lost the up and down nature of teen life. Up and down is good. Staying down is not.  If you see your teen spending increasing amounts of time alone, in their room, avoiding family and friends, you might say something like this: " I have noticed recently that you seem more down than usual. You seem to be spending a lot of alone time in your room away from us and your friends. I get life can be complicated and difficult and sometimes overwhelming, and you might like just getting away from it all. I used to do that to sometimes. But I worry that you are not giving yourself a chance to talk about it. If you don't want to talk to us, I understand, maybe it would be helpful to talk to a counselor. I don't want to bug you, but I love you, and want you to work out what seems to be bothering you. I'll check back in with you in a few days, and we can talk about a plan." You will probably get a "leave me alone!" but don't let that deter you. Keep checking in, and letting them know that you are concerned. Eventually, you may just have to make an appointment and make them get in the car.

Seeing your teen be in pain is the worst. Giving them a safe haven to express it is a gift.


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

One New Year's Resolution At A Time

Happy New Year! On your way to the gym, and after you have only eaten healthy food in order to lose 10 pounds, and when you have cleaned out your closets and gotten rid of all your non-essentials, and when you have finished your salad, no dressing for lunch, and then walked for 30 minutes instead of having a hostess cupcake(does anyone eat hostess cupcakes anymore), and then did everything on your "to-do" list at work or at home before your kids come home, and made sure that you accomplished everything on your new years resolution list, then take a deep breath and say thank god this day is over.

The problem with New Years resolutions is that we make too many of them, and then never really follow through on any of them. The same thing also happens with parenting. I might meet with parents for an hour, and in that time we come up with a game plan that includes a number of strategies to improve whatever situation brought them in to see me. I always caution them to pick one issue, and one strategy, stick with making that one change, integrating it into their parenting bag of tricks before they take on something else. Imagine trying to teach you dog how to sit, come, and roll over all in the same training session. Eventually they just look at you, with that adorable cocked head, and know you are absolutely crazy. Teens are the same way. If a new regime takes over, and you start changing all the rules at the same time, your teen will look at you with that adorable cocked head, and say,"What are you crazy?"

Perhaps over this vacation, you have had time to reflect on your relationship with your teen, or thought about some areas you think you need to help your teen with. Maybe you want to be less negative and focus less on what they don't do and more on what they can do. Maybe you are worried about homework focus and cell-phone use, or their organization and time-management issues, or their attitude and how they talk to you. I am sure there are a million things that could go on this list. Pick one and only one, and then think of a simple strategy to address it, and then follow through on it, consistently!

Teens hate change. They resist it, and will fight you every step of the way. This is not really their fault. So much of adolescence is about change; changing bodies, changing moods, changing relationships, changing expectations. They are so overwhelmed by all these changes, which for the most part are out of their control, that they tend to hang on to those things that have become almost ritualistic whether they are good for them or not. So before you institute any changes in rules, or expectations first make sure you acknowledge with them that change is hard. You can say: "I've been thinking about ________________, and it seems like we need to work on this. I know you are used to ________________, and doing it a different way will be an adjustment, I get it. Lets figure out a way together to make it work.  Including them in the strategy building helps them to take ownership of it. Nobody likes to be told what to do, especially teens. The key here is not the choosing of whether or not there will be some change but how it will make it easier for them to be successful at adjusting to it.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The 12 Days Of Vacation...Part 2

On the twelfth day of vacation my teenager gave to me
the back to school of "leave me alone, I'm getting up"

11 moans of vacation is too short

10 straight hours of sleeping

9 texts of "can I stay out a little longer"

8 different plans for New Years Eve

7 hours of playing video games


6 kids sleeping in the basement

5 minutes of peace

4 hugs and thank you's for great gifts and dinners

3 ride requests

2 loads of laundry

and mornings free of "get up you're going to be late."